July 15, 2022
Lassen Volcanic National Park northern boundary at mile 1365.5 to campsite at mile 1384.7, with a dip into Old Station
We allow ourselves to sleep in for once, and it’s a delight. The plan is to start moving by 7 or 7:15, but it’s definitely closer to 8 by the time we’re hiking. I’m sore after the 34, but it’s not as bad as it could be. I’m now on a steady regimen of vitamin I, I’ve stretched marginally well, and I can still walk.
It’s a very easy, gentle downhill all morning. The three of us walk together and banter about various things, including how unnecessary it is that in England it’s “maths” instead of “math.” (Jumbo: “What’s the long form of the word? Mathematics! There’s an ‘S’ on that!” Me: “Yeah, but you totally don’t need it. ‘Th’ is one of the hardest sounds in any language and then you make it harder by sticking an ‘S’ on the end!”)
Before long we’re at the water source for the morning. A guy sitting under a tree recognizes J and says confidently, “Daddy Long Toes!” You can see the gears turning in Jumbo’s head, trying to place him. Then the hiker adds, “Remember me? Hot Pocket? We stayed together at Greg’s place in Wrightwood!” It all snaps back into place. We stay there talking to Hot Pocket for a long time, catching up on his hike and reminiscing about Greg’s. I can’t believe that was so long ago! Wrightwood is still one of my favorite towns on the PCT. I love that about the trail, how you can go ages without seeing anyone and then suddenly they pop up again.
We muster all the energy we can to continue the 7.7 miles to Old Station. It’s mostly downhill, but the sun is punishing and I’m fantasizing about cold drinks and microwave burritos. The trail opens up and goes through some sage-like scrub brush and I feel like I’m just outside Mount Laguna. It’s so weird how this is reverting to the desert again. At the road, I turn left, then another left at the intersection, and there’s the convenience store and restaurant that make up Old Station.
Tribute is behind us, so Jumbo and I get cold drinks and wait until he shows up, which doesn’t take long. I opt for a large Dr. Pepper from the fountain and I think I actually might expire with delight. We go next door to JJ’s Restaurant, which is slammed by a pocket of travelers right as we arrive, so it takes forever for us to get our food and drinks. My burger, when I get it, is just alright, but the coke and coffee are great. We’re there for the better part of two hours sitting outside under quickly shifting shade. It’s so hot. I don’t like this. So hot and ashy. Mehhhh. Time to go back to the gas station.
We’re at the Old Station Fill Up for a very long time. First I go in and get a microwave spicy chicken sandwich and an iced tea. Then I go back for an ice cream and an iced coffee. I probably could have eaten more, honestly, but I’ve consumed all the cold beverages I’ve been fantasizing about, so I feel satiated. Outside the gas station we talk to a couple of hikers we’ve been seeing for the past two days. Their names are 8 Bucks, who is from Colorado, and Toothpaste, who is from Germany. They seem really cool, and I’m excited to hike around them some more.
After a while, we sit at a picnic table and start talking to Hot Pocket and his friend Animal Planet. They’re from the panhandle of Florida, salt-of-the-Earth American boys with accents that Jumbo reverently describes as “amazing,” and they tell hilarious Florida stories. It strikes me in this moment that if I’d seen a group of hikers like us six years ago before I was really starting to get into long-distance hiking, I would have acted like they were gods. Here we are, laughing and eating and covered in dirt, so confident in our existence that we sit, relaxed, chilling in the shade for hours next to a gas station that might as well be a palace. I love thru-hiking.
We eventually decide that it’s high time to go back on trail, so we grudgingly leave the comforts of air conditioning and running water and refrigeration behind and walk back to the PCT. But it’s not long before we’re dumping our packs and taking a side trail to Subway Cave, a lava tube 0.4 off-trail. Normally detours of this length are irritating, but I do love a lava cave.
It’s a very good lava cave. It’s a cool 50-ish degrees down there. There are interpretive signs that explain how certain parts of the tube were formed, including the lavacicles hanging from the ceiling formed from dripping lava and the cracks in the ground that might connect to other tubes. The earth is so neat. We bumble through the darkness with our headlamps and enjoy making silly sounds because there’s no one else around. It’s a successful side quest.
Back on the trail, we have a few moments of flat before it turns upwards towards the Hat Creek rim. I manage to stay with Jumbo up the hill, which I’m proud of. I think I’m just in “hike as far as you can get today” mode. At the top of the hill there’s a pit toilet with a few hikers clustered around it. “Want some trail magic?” we hear someone say. Turns out, it’s a trail angel named Pause (or maybe Paws?) who hiked the PCT in 2017 and is doing a little magic today. We’re at the tail end of it, but there are still cold beers and fruit. I take a beer and sit gratefully in the shade. But I think it messes up my stomach because I feel terrible right after that, and we end up sitting for longer than planned.
While we’re there, we talk to some of the hikers we haven’t met before. One of them is ending her journey here and getting off trail because she misses her husband and she feels like she’s gotten everything she wanted out of the experience. I really respect that. It fills me with something akin to relief to remember that there is life outside the trail, and that it’s great, too. I think I’ve been panicking recently thinking about what I’m going to do after this, so remembering that there is joy apart from thru-hiking—so much joy that it’s worth getting off trail for—makes me feel hopeful.
Once we start moving again, I don’t really feel like talking or being with people, so I let Jumbo and Tribute go ahead. I go at my own pace and wander down the edge of this canyon in the golden light. It’s so beautiful. I love this time of day so much. I put on Nick Drake and go around a comer while the instrumental song “Horn” is playing, and there’s Mt. Shasta framed in the trees in the rest of the evening light. Oh, right. Okay. This trail is amazing.
I make it to camp just as the daylight is fading. I set up under a tree in one of the least dusty spots I can find, then Jumbo, Tribute, and I cook dinner at the edge of camp while watching the rest of the sunset drip over the world.